The Listener: Reflections on the art of war

War and warriors have been the subject of art since man picked up tools. In this week's selection from the best of BBC radio we explore the evolution of their depiction, from heroic cave drawings to disturbing depictions of modern warfare
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LAURA CUMMING: From the time when we first learnt that tools could be used to make marks, human beings have created life-like representations of important aspects of our lives. Certain images recur in almost every part of the world. Warriors, lovers, dancers, mothers, gods. I'll be looking at the many ways in which people, at different times and in different cultures, have represented warriors, and trying to discover what these images tell us about culture, about art, about ourselves.

PETER HOWSON: We were driving about in a tank and the soldiers said, "I think you should see something," and they stopped the tank in the middle of this road. It was actually the middle of a sort of battlefield, because there were bombs dropping and shots ringing out all over the place. Then we saw these coaches, and one of them had been hit by a mortar.

Someone had been blown apart, and that was the first thing I saw. I went up to what was left of the body, and a major said: "Get your sketch book out."

LC: The Scottish painter Peter Howson was so shocked by what he saw in Bosnia that day that he couldn't make a single mark in his sketchbook. Howson had volunteered to be Britain's official war artist during the conflict in former Yugoslavia because he wanted to experience and portray what the soldier experiences in the thick of war: the smoke and gunfire; the horror and boredom; the fear of sudden death. But it wasn't until he was back home, in the silence of the studio, that the images of Bosnia finally began to flood on to the canvas: bombed houses, scorched bodies, and, above all, the soldiers, the so-called ethnic cleansers, and the checkpoint guards, crazed with fury and drink. The figures are brutally large on the canvas, painted in forceful brush-strokes that clearly convey Howson's anger and grief in the face of war. The art critic Richard Cork believes these images have a dimension beyond the reach of photography.

RICHARD CORK: It's tempting now to imagine that the camera can do everything, but when you look at a painting like Peter Howson's Cleansers, Seventh Brigade, you realise that there are limits to what modern technology can supply us with. I don't know of any photograph or any film to come out of Bosnia which offers the experience that Peter Howson gives us here. We are confronted with the extraordinary image of a man who seems to be deranged by his experience of war, he's quite clearly out of his mind, he's striding towards us, apparently purposeful, but in fact, the more you look at him, the more you realise he has no real direction in mind, he a renegade really - a marauder.

PH: This particular soldier could never be called a hero. For me, he's a bully. I kept on putting the eyes in, and then I would take them out, and then put them back in: every time I put the eyes in it didn't look right, so eventually I did these blank eyes which is what they had really. Eyes that had nothing in them anymore. They just had tiny, tiny little microbes left, and that's about it really. It's almost like what Charles Dickens said about Bill Sikes - that he was the only character whom he portrayed as being totally evil. This is almost the same as that.

LC: The figure of the warrior is almost the earliest in art. In this Spanish gorge you can clamber up the main path to a rocky overhang where, if you look very closely, you can spot a little troop of warriors marching, almost springing, across the rock. This ancient painted miniature army, only two or three inches high, fascinates art historians such as Colin Wiggins and Diane Kirkpatrick.

DIANE KIRKPATRICK: It's an amazingly lively combination of figures. They move from the smaller figures in the back to one that has a slightly fancier headgear on in the front, who presumably is a leader.

It's surprising how individual the profiles are of these individual figures, so you really get engaged. It speaks across time - it suggests a kind of energy that makes one not think necessarily that they're going into war. There's a jubilation about the way they march along.

COLIN WIGGINS: They're marching in what appears to be a kind of goose- step. If they were to come into the room now we'd be a bit alarmed by their proportions, because their torsos are enormously long and their legs are actually quite tiny. They seem to be carrying bows and arrows, a bow in one arm and then a cluster of arrows in the other. And from those funny brush marks dangling between their legs it seems apparent that they're not wearing many clothes - but then ancient warriors did go into battle naked.

DK: The male members are prominently displayed - that would probably have been a sign of additional force. They aren't going into battle immediately, because the bows aren't at the ready, and that certainly adds to the feeling of jubilation. It could be that by recording this on the wall you perpetuate a moment when you are successful in banding together to defend your particular part of the world. People are really mystified about what the figures might have been. There are lots of places where symbols of warriors have been left to act in the afterworld - in China, for example, to serve as bodyguards of the emperor - but these don't seem to have that kind of function.

LC: The Roman emperor Trajan was much more concerned with the here and now. Under Trajan's rule the power of Rome stretched furthest across the world. He was so proud of his military triumphs in what are now Hungary and Romania that he had a detailed record of the campaign carved in white marble in 117AD. Trajan's column still stands in centre of Rome, 128ft high, with the story worked in relief in a kind of cartoon strip of incidents which spirals all the way up the column. Only a bird would be able to see the very last of the tiny soldiers at the top. But the art historian James Malpas has seen most of them.

JAMES MALPAS: What is majestic about it is the humanity of the figures. Instead of this just being the Empire and emperor showing off, there are ordinary folk here - they're helping themselves out of mud-holes, chatting - and it's as much about the daily life of the campaign as much as it is about power and glory and fame.

What the sculptors have achieved is a sense of the tension of waiting, of that extraordinary thing you do find in army matters - hours and hours of boredom and then terror. Human feeling is not left out and that's what makes it this marvellous mixture of realism and glory.

LC: The image of hundreds of soldiers marching or riding into war is the commonest form of patriotic propaganda. The walls of the Palace of Versailles are entirely covered in gigantic canvases depicting Napoleon plunging bravely into battle surrounded by battalions of loyal troops. But the single heroic figure can sometimes have more impact. The lone warrior, central to the sculpture of antiquity, comes to a peak in oil painting with the portraits of 18th-century Europe.

In the National Gallery in London is a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of the dashing Sir Banastre Tarleton, General of the Regiment of Green Jackets, who fought in the American War of Independence in 1775. Tarleton is dressed in a sumptuous green velvet jacket, he wears a resplendent fur hat and gleaming white skin-tight jodhpurs. One hand is on his shapely hip, the other stretched down as if to fasten his well-polished boot. He poses like a film star in front of a cannon and distant smoke, the warrior as elegant hero. Anyone would have thought the British had won, not lost. But military portraits, says the National Gallery's Colin Wiggins, are often the most deceptive form of propaganda.

COLIN WIGGINS: He's posing, that's for sure, and from what we understand of the man's character now, he was a poseur. He had actually had a couple of his fingers shot off, and Reynolds has very discreetly drawn your attention to that hand. We know that when Tarleton came back, he said things like: I lost these for King and Country, and enjoyed his reputation as a military hero. So what Reynolds is trying to convey is that here is a fearless man, a noble man, willing to sacrifice life and limb.

LC: So is this painting a pin-up, or a piece of propaganda?

CW: I think it's probably both of those things. We have to bear in mind that the artist is doing this for payment and has to flatter his sitter. The pose is a quote from an ancient Roman sculpture which was thought to represent an ancient Roman war hero, and in using that pose what Reynolds is saying is that the General Sir Banastre Tarleton is up there with the great heroes of the ancient world.

LC: For centuries the figure of the warrior was, for the artist, a kind of actor on a stage, experiencing physical and emotional extremes, sometimes in armies, sometimes as a solitary hero. One painting changed all that. Third May, 1808, by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, concerns the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and is subtitled the Execution of the Defenders of Madrid. This huge and terrible scene is enacted on a barren hill on a moonless night: an oversized lantern on the ground throws up an eerie light, illuminating the French soldiers - a row of backs - and, facing us, their Spanish victims lined up to be shot. The soldiers are a single rigid armoury - no faces, just guns. It's the first painting of the modern warrior in all his mechanical efficiency.

LC: The rifles are a series of long, white, gleaming streaks of iron - the paint almost shoots across the canvas. A figure on the left is bleeding and red paint is bleeding, as it were, into the canvas. Is Goya using the paint and the brush itself as a weapon?

In the art of the 20th century, the innocent victims of war are not just the citizens but the soldiers themselves, no longer volunteers but conscripts required to fight in wars whether they liked it or not. During the First World War artists were recruited as soldiers. The English painter John Nash was sent to fight at the front in 1917. His most famous work, Over the Top, shows his fellow soldiers struggling out of the dark earth of the trench, up into the snow-covered battlefields of France. Dark figures against a wintry white, they're dangerously visible to the enemy. Yet Nash makes a graceful composition out of this dreadful scene, choreographing the forms like dancers against a backdrop. Out of the cruelty of war comes a bitter beauty.

Nash wanted people who saw his picture to understand that soldiers were sometimes forced to obey stupid and fatal commands. No matter how heroic, eager, or patriotic, a soldier is always facing death - and this is the artist's battle. How to represent the warrior as someone who carries the intonation of death with him wherever he goes. How to portray him as a real man, triumphant or beaten, and not just a symbol of war.

PH: It makes you realise how central war is to history, and how humanity has been pummelled this way and that by the forces of war. And, at the same time, how much the notion of the warrior varies according to why these images were made. At one extreme you get the notion of the unstoppable army for a propaganda exercise, very often associated with memorials put after successful conquests. But at other times, more interestingly, you get these almost confessional images that seem to arise from a compulsion on the part of the artist. Moments which arise from the idea of the artist as a witness, of a pressure building up inside the artist's own mind, that what they saw during the battle has to come out, whether they like it or not. And those I those I think are the moments of revelation which most explain why the image of the warrior does have an extraordinary fascination for us.

The Speakers LAURA CUMMING Broadcaster and journalist PETER HOWSON Artist RICHARD CORK Art critic DIANE KIRKPATRICK Art historian COLIN WIGGINS Education Officer at the National Gallery Jessica Rawson Warden of Merton College, Oxford and China expert James Malpas Art critic

This discussion was broadcast as part of the `Lightness of Being' series which continues on the BBC World Service